Written by Susie Finn
There are many horror films featuring killer animals (I have included one on this list as he has dual roles both as the victim and the attacker), however what I was most interested in - and the aim of my ‘Horror’s Best Animal Performances’ list - were animal roles which either impacted the plot in some way or would be remembered by audience as significant characters in the film; I also wanted to avoid those that were relegated to just being the antagonist. So obvious choices such as Jaws, The Birds, Mans Best Friend, Alligator, Rogue were all left out. In researching this I realized how few animal roles fit this criteria, and how few of those were canines. On to the list.
Spoiler Alert for all movies listed
This story of a deaf mute tormented in her own home by a psychopathic intruder was one of Netflix’ biggest hits in 2016 and one of the best horror films released that year.
It was taut, nasty, compelling and had a kick ass heroine who uses her wiles to try and turn the tables on a truly repulsive attacker. She shares her home with a cat - a beautiful fluffy cat with attitude - that she affectionately refers to as, “little bitch” - a term of endearment many cat lovers will relate with. Later in the film when she’s captured by the psychopathic stalker, it seems our feline friend will end up as kill fodder or a plot device to push the film’s heroine to push forward; but not so fast. She’s allowed to escape, and eventually shares victory with her owner at the end. It’s then that we learn her name is actually “Bitch”, and we’re left with an aftermath survey of all the ensuing chaos which occurred - of which, feeling wonderfully cat-like.
I chose Bitch because I love a cat with attitude, she also bucks convention, and the affectionate name-calling in the first place is just so real.
Ginger cat extraordinaire, this guy was a companion for Ripley, though ostensibly allowed to be on board the Nostromo for the purpose of pest control (that ship is huge!)
That’s a lot of work for one little cat. After it was discovered that Jonesy’s nocturnal movements were interfering with the crew member’s ability to properly track the alien (the one which had just recently burst from Kane’s chest) the ill-fated Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) was dispatched to find and contain the cat. The death scene which ensues (with a terrified Jonesy watching from his hiding place as light scatters across his face) stands as an iconic moment in sci-fi horror history. He subsequently goes on to be the only survivor, tucked away in his cat box as Ripley races about trying to find them an escape. After a 57 year cryo-sleep they are together again in Aliens, with Jonesy left in Ripley’s apartment when she jumps back into the fray. After that his story is unclear.
Chosen because not only is the iconic scene one of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in a horror film, but also because he is not abandoned in the story - as so many companion animals are. Ripley’s concern for him as a crew member is realistic and adds some softer dimensions to her character.
PET SEMETARY (1989)
Family moves to a new home and finds a pet cemetery behind their house, and just behind that an old burial ground - which exists to reanimate the buried dead in horrible fashion.
A lot is made of the fact that they are living on a busy main road and have to stop the wandering of their daughter’s cat, Church. Before you know it, a car has hit the poor blue cat killing him. Unable to face telling his daughter about the death of someone she loved so much, the father decides to bury the cat in the old Indian burial grounds. Church returns… different; lights flash in his emotionless eyes, he’s angry and wants to kill, its commented that he smells “bad” and suddenly his daughter doesn’t want that strange stinky cat sleeping in her bed anymore. In the end, dear old dad dispatches Church with a syringe full of poison in an upsetting scene that feels a little too real.
Chosen because Church is integral to the story, and the performance they get from the eight cats employed to embody him is rather remarkable given the pre-CG date of the film.
The Witch (2015)
Though his motives and purpose are hidden for most of this film, he is arguably the central antagonist, but as he is not a member of the ‘animal baddie of the week’ club, I still feel he fits the criteria.
The Witch, set in 16th century New England tells the story of a family living on the outskirts of town secluded from all others the puritanical Christians are at the mercy of a witch who - at the beginning of the film - kidnaps, kills, and eats their infant child. Black Phillip is one of their goats, living in his pen, watching the action unfold, playing with the children and biding his time. Finally he is revealed to be the devil incarnate and his whispered instructions to the children is both creepy and wildly inventive, not something I’ve seen put to film quite so literally before.
The Witch is a dense psychological horror with bursts of the grotesque, a film that many people responded positively to.
As for me, I felt rather ambivalent about the movie, but Black Phillip? Now that goat is a star!
Yes Cujo is the main antagonist, and yes the film is named after him. This is still the best animal performance put to film. He isn’t treated as a monster, and the film never loses focus of the fact that Cujo’s behavior is a result of circumstances completely out of his control.
The story (though I’m sure all horror fans are familiar with this classic) concerns itself with a big lovable Saint Bernard dog named Cujo who gets bitten on the nose by a bat. Rabies slowly turn him into a crazed aggressive killer. He crosses paths with Donna (horror goddess Dee Wallace) who drives out to his homestead with her prepubescent son to have her car fixed. Of course it breaks down, and she’s left stranded on the property. Cujo circles, watching, and eventually attacks - the noon sun turning the car into a human oven. It’s a great movie with real “what would you do?” moments. It’s made all the more great by the performances they managed to get out of the five dogs employed to play Cujo. How they got such amazing scenes out of the dogs prior to the advent of CGI is unfathomable.
Truly scary, thought-provoking, simple and effective, I chose this as my number one for the performances but also for Cujo’s place in pop culture. He is truly iconic, and that is something to celebrate.
So what do you think? Who did I miss? Which animal actors have impressed you? Please comment below… and keep watching horrors!